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Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to Find a Good Threat Assessment Consultant: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Hire

Let's face it, security can be big business -- and that means it can attract some vendors who aren't all that they claim to be.  After mass tragedies, we have seen unqualified folks come out of the woodwork and announce that they are "experts" in one security area or another.  This is certainly true in the area of behavioral threat assessment and threat management.

Businesses, educational institutions, government agencies, and high-profile individuals may look to hire a behavioral threat assessment consultant when they are faced with a death threat, a stalking situation, or some other disturbing behavior.  They may seek out threat assessment training if they want to learn how to respond appropriately to threats and troubling behavior – or if they are looking to start a threat assessment team.  Threat assessment consultants and instructors are hired for their ability to evaluate threats and craft strategies to effectively reduce or minimize the risk…and in the case of training, their ability to teach others to do the same.

But how can you tell whether your threat assessment consultant or instructor is truly qualified?  Here are 5 questions to ask -- ideally before you hire a consultant or sign up for a course:

1. “How much direct experience do you have in investigating, evaluating, and/or managing individual threat cases?”   While there is no hard and fast rule, we think that it takes a good 7-10 years of experience working on threat cases (depending on the level of direct involvement) before a person has truly developed a level of expertise in threat assessment and management.  Preferably they should have received all, or at least some, of their experience from a structured work setting such as a law enforcement agency, security service, forensic mental health program, or established campus or workplace threat assessment program where they could learn from others with more experience in the field.  Ideally, at least some of the consultant’s /instructor’s experience should be directly relevant to your environment – meaning that if you are concerned about workplace threats, your consultant’s direct experience comes at least in part from workplace threat cases .  As with any potential hire, check your would-be consultant's or instructor’s claims about experience by calling references and asking around about their reputation.

2. “Give me examples of the different types of cases you have handled, and what you found that worked effectively to address some of those situations.”  What you are looking for is a broad range of experience and the ability to offer details on some specific situations or cases.  A good threat assessment consultant (or instructor) should be able to describe their involvement on a wide array of cases, including threats of harm to others, harm to self, stalking (cyber- or regular), harassment, and others.  A good threat assessment consultant should also be able to provide specific examples of interventions or case management strategies they put into place that worked to reduce risk or improve the overall safety of the situation.  Beware of a consultant or instructor who cannot provide some specific examples - or who hides behind claims of privacy instead of answering this question.  There is no need for them to name names -- but they should at least be able to share with you the sanitized facts of some cases and how the situations were resolved.   Threat assessment consultants with sufficient case experience always have a few good stories to tell - about cases that fascinated them or solutions that worked particularly well.

3. “Tell me about your most challenging case, or about an intervention that did not work well and what you did to resolve that situation?”  Qualified threat assessment consultants and instructors often get to be good because they have learned from their experiences -- good and bad -- throughout their career.  Their answer should tell you how the consultant has learned from his or her mistakes and what they ultimately did to fix a particular problem.  It will also tell you how creative or resourceful they are when faced with a challenging problem.  Beware of any threat assessment consultant or instructor who claims never to have made a mistake.  Either they don't have as much experience as they are claiming - or they are not being truthful in their response.

4. “What will your references say is your greatest strength?  Your biggest weakness?”  There is no one "right" answer to these questions, but the consultant's answers will give you some insight into how well-suited they may be for your particular needs.  For example, a consultant who writes lengthy reports and takes months to do so may not be well-suited for an operationally-focused organization that needs to make decisions quickly.  A consultant who uses a lot of jargon may sound impressive but may not be able to translate their expertise into information or recommendations you can actually use.

5. “Who can verify your credentials?”  Although it takes some additional time, we strongly recommend asking for - and then checking with - at least two references provided by the consultant or instructor.  A reference who includes qualifiers in their commentary (e.g. "usually good; "basically offered helpful advice;" "generally responsive to our requests") should be questioned a bit further on negatives or instances of problems with the consultant.  We also recommend verifying claims about education – what degrees the consultant or instructor says they have and from where.  We know of some consultants who introduce themselves as “Dr.” but never earned a degree that would allow them to use that title.  A quick call to the institution where the consultant claims to have gotten their degree will let you know for sure.

Above all, keep in mind that a threat assessment consultant is someone you may have to hire to help you handle a potentially dangerous or even-life threatening situation.  It is important to take time to vet them as thoroughly as possible – ideally before a crisis arises.  Identifying and screening potential consultants before you are faced with an imminent situation will allow you sufficient time to verify claims and check with references.  If a crisis eventually occurs, you'll be able to secure the well-qualified help you need quickly and confidently.

Marisa R. Randazzo, PhD & Gene Deisinger, PhD are lead authors of The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams.


  1. Our college have worked with someone who had done some sexual assault and hazing work with us and they gave us a scale of threats on a chart mainly based on what people say which seems like a good indicator that someone is making a threat. I am not sure if they have worked on many cases, isn't that difficult as there seem to be so few cases?

  2. A.M - It is important to review credentials carefully. There are a number of good resources available to colleges and universities, many of them with tremendous experience and demonstrated effectives. However, in the last few years, campus safety has become a cottage industry, attracting people with varied experience and background. Your post references a couple of things that would cause me concern. First, any purported threat assessment scale or process that is mainly based on what people say, is NOT a reliable means of evaluating the threat posed by a situation and is not likely to facilitate effective intervention strategies. Second, I would want to know a lot more about the "experts" actual experience in working cases. I don't understand how anyone could develop expertise in threat assessment and management without having worked a number of cases. Social scientists have estimated that it takes about 8-10,000 hours of experience to truly develop an expertise. That is a minimum of 4-5 years of full time devotion to the study and practice of a chosen field, and being subjected to the review of well-established experts. Dr. Randazzo and I each have over 16 years of direct involvement in assessing and managing cases. If one is truly working in threat assessment and management, there are ample opportunities to gain experience and refine skills across a broad range of cases. It is true that there are few cases of targeted violence involving mass casualties. What is lost, in our society's focus on high profile cases, are the significant number of more moderate threats that colleges and universities deal with on a regular basis. A true expert will have worked the whole range of these cases, and understand that the process and interventions must be scalable to meet the demands of the case, and utilize the resources available. Please feel free to contact us directly if you have further questions.

  3. Our campus also had some people teach us behavioral intervention that really helped us realize that the biggest problem is reporting the information when people make threats and then putting them on the scale that has approx 9 levels. I don't know about prior experience of the trainer but it makes sense that when someone makes a threat they are dangerous. Would like to know more about your training though. I just read the Tucson blog and it made sense and so I will be in touch.

  4. Jerry
    We would welcome the opportunity to talk with you about our approach to training and case management.

    While it initially makes some intuitive sense that "when someone makes a threat, they are dangerous", the reality is much more complicated. Several research studies have shown that expressed threats (verbal or written) have a varied relationship with actual violence. Sometimes those expressed threats are followed by actual acts of violence. However, people make many more threats than they ever carry through with. This doesn't make the threats appropriate or irrelevant, not at all. They may well (even if not reflective of intent to commit actual harm) provide us with insight about the motivations and concerns of the person expressing the threat. We must pay attention to such threats but, by themselves, they tell us little about the actual danger posed by the person.

    Also, many of the persons who escalate to more targeted expressions of violence, NEVER express threats to the persons they ultimately harm. The absence of expressed threats in those cases, cannot be taken as a sign of diminished risk.

    The significant mediators in understanding the danger, are the context in which the threats are made, and the behaviors that are present, regardless of the nature of the threats.

    Simplistic risk rubrics, that emphasize the presence of expressed threats as a key predictor result in both over-estimating risk where threats are expressed, and under-estimating risk where they are absent.

    Sigma's approach (and the standard for experienced practitioners in the field) is one that is contextually and behaviorally driven.

    Please contact Dr. Randazzo or me if you would like to discuss further!

  5. Our institution uses the NaBita model. However, I saw this entry after reading your Tucson piece and now I am wondering if our consultant had the experience to train us. Interested in what you think benefits or potential libilities could be of different models. We obviously want to avoid harm but also want to avoid lawsuits.

  6. I too would be interested in potential liabilities on the part of the consultant if something went wrong.

    We always hope that people who provide training are well trained but we know different. It was amazing after Virginia Tech how many new threat consultants came out of the woodwork. Our university joined a national group but jumped at the prices for simple documents. I think that pointed to another problem, that some consultants are charging huge prices for sub-standard services. We never want anything to happen, but if it did, again, could the consultant be on the hook with us? Seems everyone wants to sue over anything, we got threatened when a student got drunk and admitted to hospital and with budgets as they are we cannot afford to take a hit if the worst case happened.

  7. Set the record straightJanuary 14, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    @ Dr. Deisinger- Your note to A.M. suggests that a consultant should have worked a lot of threat cases to be a good consultant. Surely someone who has worked in other areas of violence prevention, sexual assault prevention or hazing prevention would have transferrable skill sets for Behavioral Intervention. There are many valid models and much, I would argue, comes from the across the board skill sets as well as the presentation skills of the trainer. You will not find many professors, even in the Ivy league, who have great practical experience in all fields, yet as trainers or consultants they are best in their class.

    As this blog seems to be hitting the media quite hard because of a piece on Tucson, I think it only right that I correct the assertion that the only good consultants are those who have worked significant threat type cases.

  8. @ Setting the Record Straight (no ID provided, please permit me disagree. My 20 years working in multiple areas of campus violence prevention as well as threat assessment tells me that while there are some areas of overlap in these experiences, nothing substitutes for actually conducting Threat Assessments. Certainly nowhere in the TA literature does there exist a call for presentation skills. Experience is a necessary if not sufficient criterion and to suggest otherwise feels a little like “I’m not an expert but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn”. I’m a professor of psychology (albeit not at an Ivy) and my classroom presentation skills and content expertise do not take the place of my experience.

    If we asked those considering hiring a potential TA consultant to list the skills they assume an expert would have, experience would be right up there. Hiring Authorities' responsibility to exercise due diligence is especially critical when ‘related experience’ is suggested as germane. They must look further into the backgound of such a potential consultant to insure the experience was acquired through first-hand participation. Sufficient proof is found through inquiries of former colleagues, i.e., “did you witness the exercise of the claimed expertise – when it mattered?” Table-top exercises and presentations do not equate with conducting an assessment and implementing a management plan when it counts. Bootstrapping ‘related’ experience that is not hands-on is an invalid indicator of expertise.

    Those trained in marketing or the law are experts in studying components of areas being litigated or marketed. That study does not impart expertise. It qualifies them to litigate or market. Those who market a program would never be called upon as an expert in court.

    Jeff Pollard
    Professor of Psychology
    Executive Director, Counseling & Psychological Services

  9. Hi All,

    I received a few emails this weekend asking if I had posted on this blog as "Set the record straight". No, until the emails, I wasn't even aware of the blog. If I posted, I'd do it as I have below, with my name on it. I think the blog offers good advice on choosing a consultant, though I think there is room to distinguish threat assessment and management consultants from behavioral intervention consultants. I appreciate the contribution Gene, Marissa and their colleagues are making to our field, and hope this blog enriches the safety of our campuses and communities.


    Brett A. Sokolow, Esq.
    Executive Director, NaBITA

  10. The guideline for selecting a consultant indeed reflects a bias towards the ability to assist teams in bridging the divide between knowledge and experience. There is no shortage of capable experts or academics that can synthesize research through literature reviews or meta-analysis and also deliver excellent lectures and presentations. These are necessary and noble contributions towards better understanding the precepts underlying the discipline of threat assessment. Such knowledge however should not be mistaken for, or represented as, experience.

    Often in the course of searching for a consultant institutions or organizations have already immersed themselves in the literature and have a rather high literacy with the varying approaches and models available. What they are often looking for is someone to assist in both the arena of threat assessment (what do we have) and threat management (what do we do). When they encounter new, unique or vexing challenges in the face of dynamic and sometimes dangerous situations, teams should feel secure in the knowledge that they are receiving advice from practitioners who have navigated perilous territory successfully in the past. A good consultant should be able to find their way through the trees and not simply deliver one to the forest's edge.